People believe in evolution, just not for humans

The term “liberal Creationism” refers to the fact that on the cultural Left there is a strong belief in the concept of evolution on the whole, but in the case of human beings biological evolutionary processes are seen as marginal in comparison to culture. In other words, natural selection and adaptation explain the diversity around us in the animal and plant world, but can tell us little about human beings.

This viewpoint exhibits various degrees of sophistication, but I think it gets at a real deeply held perspective (though not universal one, in Defenders of the Truth it is recounted that Noam Chomsky held his fire during the sociobiology controversy in part because he was quite open to the idea that behavior could have some biological basis).

Looking at the General Social Survey though, I believe now that the liberal Creationist viewpoint is actually just a spin on the normal American position. That is, Americans as a whole are quite open to the idea of descent with modification and common ancestry in the context of animals, but much more squeamish when it comes to humans. Some conservative religious Creationists admit this rather frankly. Their objection to evolution is not about science, but about human dignity. In fact I believe William Jennings Bryan’s Creationism mostly just involved special creationism for human beings. The rest was not important to him.

A new GSS variable, EVOLVED2, which complements an older variable, EVOLVED, allows us to explore this question directly.

Here is what they ask:

EVOLVED: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Is that true or false?)

EVOLVED2: Elephants evolved from earlier species. (Is that true or false?)

53 precent of respondents answered yes to true in the first case, but 86 percent in the second case. In other words, presenting evolution in a non-human context reduces resistance.

You can check the responses against attitudes toward the literality of the Bible:

I think this suggests to us that on a broader social scale resistance to evolution is culturally conditioned, and derives from deep intuitions about human dignity. The specific details of where that dignity comes from, whether it be Protestant Fundamentalist or Social Justice is incidental.